In the mid 1980’s I was in a Moscow taxi, making my way to the conference hotel near Red Square when the taxi driver, having seen the British Airways tags on my luggage, turned round to me, beamed and said with great approval “Totchah”. Like any good leftist academic I had practiced a few Russian greetings, including of course Comrade, but this vernacular exhortation defeated me. I smiled vaguely, but he repeated the phrase, like a chanting crowd. To my prissy dismay, I eventually worked out what had generated so much enthusiasm in this Soviet comrade: “Thatcher”.
As far as I know, she is the only Prime Minister to have studied Chemistry, and perhaps the only Prime Minister with a science degree. She got a Second Class Honours in the four-year Chemistry BSc; in her final year she specialised in X-ray crystallography under the supervision of Dorothy Hodgkin, one of the few women Nobel Laureates in science, who deciphered the structure of penicillin, vitamin B12 and insulin. Although the Thatcher biographies identify her father as the main influence in her life, it seems likely Hodgkin would have also been a “role model” and inspiration. Her technique of peering into obscure systems, getting to know them in detail, and then opening up their structures must have appealed to the young Margaret Roberts. Hodgkin was bright, and worked very, very hard in the male world of science.
(I met both Hodgkin and Thatcher when they were ghosts: Hodgkin sat next to me at a Pugwash conference in Geneva, an elder grand lady of science who dozed through most of the proceedings. The Soviet generals were defending their radar systems against US complaints that they were built for attack. She was probably wise to take a nap. Like most very bright minds, she was modest in her self-presentation. Thatcher I “met” at 10 yards: supplicants gently queued to be in her presence at a Royal Hospital reception in Chelsea. I thought I would be a hypocrite to join the throng. She was perfectly attired and coiffured, imperious, silent and probably only the vestigial carapace of her former self. My wife used to see her in the Royal Hospital Chapel on occasional Sundays).
It is both irritating and humbling to note that most of us lead much of our lives in the magnetic fields of political thinkers. At least half of the time we are grinding our teeth, and waiting for the other lot, usually to be disappointed. In actual fact, the very things we oppose may come to take us over. Citizens generally claim a consistency in their world views which is entirely illusory: Greg Markus (1986) studied the same US high school seniors in 1973 and 1982, and on the second occasion asked them to remember what their political attitudes had been in 1973. By the latter date they were already mis-remembering their earlier attitudes, bringing them into line with their current attitudes, thus showing political plasticity, not stability. For example, most respondents in 1982 claimed that they had always been in favour of total equality for women in 1973; only they hadn’t. Cognitive dissonance is rampant in the political sphere. Both those that realise they are becoming more conservative with age, and those who realise they are becoming more liberal with age tend to say that, looking back, they were always like that. We are most of us pliable, given time, but stoutly sure of our own consistency.
The members lobby of the House of Commons has four bronze statues, portraying David Lloyd George, Winston Churchill, Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher. These are the politicians’ politicians, in their hall of fame. They made the weather, and set the tram lines down which we travel. Looking at the current political furore over reforms to the benefits system, it is evident that the last two are still battling it out today.